Engaging the customers

Mobile phone operators are vying to market their next generation products. Richard Clayton looks at design’s role in convincing customers to upgrade

Unless you’ve resolved to give up television this year, you can’t have failed to notice the Vodafone Live advertisement where David Beckham annoys supermarket customers by playing games on his mobile. Just as unavoidable are the billboard posters proclaiming 2003 in Hutchison’s livery and Orange exhorting us to ‘muck about’ with photo messaging.

After spending billions on third generation licences, UK mobile phone operators are now seeking to convince consumers, many of whom are content with pay-as-you-go packages, that it’s worth splashing out on new technology.

It’s no coincidence that Orange has called in Clive Grinyer, the Design Council’s product guru, to become OrangeWorld director of customer experience (DW 16 January). When he joins in March, he will act as a ‘customer usability champion’, responsible for all aspects of the design ‘interface’.

But Grinyer and other designers in the sector face real challenges communicating the benefits of 3G – or 2.5G as it is in most cases. According to Richard Dineen, research director for wireless at analyst Ovum, ‘The benefits of 3G are not glaringly apparent for consumers. It’s really about efficiency for operators – less sexy than watching movies on the bus’.

Increased network capacity will eventually deliver ‘genuine, real-time streaming media’, he says. But Dineen’s making no firm predictions about when. ‘With NTT/DoCoMo in Japan, it took a process of years to iron out the glitches.’

In the meantime, operators are selling specific, ‘user-friendly’ services rather than trying to market an intangible ‘next wave’. The lessons of where WAP, or wireless application protocol, went wrong – ‘a substandard product, coupled with an over-promised and disappointing experience’ – have been learned, says Start design director Richard Crabb, a former Orange staffer. Instead, simplicity and intelligibility are the order of the day.

‘Vodafone has been clever,’ says Glyn Britton, a strategist with Innocence, which has been working with Orange for 18 months. ‘It isn’t just borrowing “mojo” from celebs like Beckham. It is focussing on a few services like picture messaging and ring-tones that make the product more understandable.’

Crabb thinks usage of data services won’t catch on until the ‘killer app’ of face-to-face communication arrives. But it is early days. Although Orange hopes to achieve 25 per cent of its total revenues in this way by 2005, brands have only just begun to educate and prepare their markets.

It should be remembered, says Britton, that text messaging took off ‘almost by accident, when the kids got hold of it’. He adds, ‘The key to promoting any new technology is a sufficient advantage in usefulness or the ability to engage with other people. There are parallels with interactive television. When my mum says, “I want the red button”, you know things are getting somewhere.’

Consumer technology succeeds, Britton feels, when it enables a ‘new kind of social interaction’ or enhances an existing one. This was certainly the case with texting. But that happened because it was ‘cheap, controllable and quick’, says Crabb. It may be more difficult for brands to lead consumer demand.

Hutchison has secured a deal to show clips of Premiership football on its ‘3’ platform, but that won’t replace the attraction of big screen viewing. ‘People can manage their lives around their preferred channel use,’ says Crabb.

An Economic and Social Research Council survey of text messaging found its success was largely due to its limitations. ‘If the networks make messaging too hi-fi – through picture, video, unlimited characters – they risk losing that appeal,’ Britton says.

Britton also suggests the mobile industry has reached a ‘turning point’ and is moving on from ‘engineering-led innovation’.

Dineen agrees. ‘Its heritage has put a lot of stock by functionality, but now it’s enticing people through the softer issue of enhanced media presentation – appealing to look and feel,’ he says.

O2’s OPX model was the first in the UK to use a ‘white-label manufacturer’ and carry only the operator’s branding, says Dineen. Vodafone Live and Orange’s SPV handset take similar approaches. For both teenagers and high-net worth customers, phones are now fashion accessories. Nokia is making ‘$5000 phones for the Ivana Trump set’, Dineen adds.

Since the advent of pay-as-you-go, operators have relatively limited contact with the majority of their customers. As a result, they are investing more in ‘Niketown experiences’. ‘It’s not about acquiring customers, but about serving them,’ explains Britton.

Vodafone’s Checkland Kindleysides-designed retail concept in Watford is one example, while its Vyrus project in Lisbon, created by Us Designers, is virtually a youth department store.

According to Britton, the next milestone is who owns ‘my address book’. This resides on the SIM card, but neither the operator or the manufacturer can currently pull any information from it.

The applications potential is immense, he adds, which is why Microsoft – an Orange business partner – is reorganising its strategy around an individual’s ‘digital passport’.

Britton explains, ‘Once an operator knows the nature of your relationships – who’s your boss, who’s your mum, who’s your partner – they can deliver services, especially when linked to a calendar that reflects your social engagements. For example, sophisticated filtering could prevent a call from a mate wanting to arrange a drink being put through if you were in a business meeting.’

The data protection issues here will set minds racing, however, many believe this is where technology is heading. It’s a long way from ‘Hello darling, I’m on the train’. Can you dig it?

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